People of Leeds #16: The Brothers Johnson, Swimmers Extraordinaire

A previous blog post took a look at the Cookridge Street Public Baths where the general manager and swimming instruction was Professor Peter Johnson. Today, librarian Helen Skilbeck takes a closer look at Johnson and his younger brother. This article forms #16 in our People of Leeds series.

Peter and his brother John Baptist (J.B.) Johnson were both talented swimmers with a flair for self-promotion and public entertainment. Peter (born 1842) and J.B. (1849) were both born in Manchester. It is not known when they moved to Leeds but Peter Johnson was appointed as manager and swimming instructor to the Cookridge Street Baths when they opened in 1866. He was also named as instructor to the newly formed ‘Leeds Amateur Swimming Club’ in August 1866.

The 1871 census shows both brothers lived in Lisbon Street, along with their mother and Peter’s wife Ellen and their 5 daughters. Both called themselves ‘Professor of Swimming’ by this point.

Image of the 1871 Census, showing the Johnson brothers living in Lisbon Street, Leeds.

J.B. was the quickest swimmer of the two brothers as Peter had a weakness in one leg. Nevertheless, Peter performed graceful feats and long dives for the public and could supposedly dive and swim under water for 90 yards without rising for breath.

Saturday 24 October 1868 saw the last swimming fete of the season take place in Cookridge Street Baths with J.B. Johnson competing for the ‘Championship of England’. His competitors were H. G. Dunlop of Manchester and E.T. Jones of Holbeck. Johnson easily won the 20 length race after 8 minutes and 10 seconds and received a silver cup and £4 prize money.  Peter then took control of the pool and performed a series of demonstrations. The Leeds Mercury (26 October 1868) lists Peter’s feats:

‘1, High plunge; 2, spinning in the water; 3, swimming with one leg out of the water; 4, swimming upon the head out of water; 5, walking upon the hands underwater; 6, plunge, feet first; 7, sculling under water; 8, turning somersaults; 9, swimming upon the back; 10, swimming under water; 11, lie motionless upon the bottom of the bath.’

Leeds Mercury, 26 October 1868

Admittedly some of these feats seem commonplace to us now but for a crowd in 1868, many will not have seen anything like this before.

In 1871 the two brothers took part in a spectacular hoax in London. On 2 June Peter Johnson posed as Mr Peters, a London businessman, and took a boat trip along the Thames. As the boat passed London Bridge he ‘fell’ from the boat and was seen to be struggling in the river, his head frequently submerged.

At this moment a powerful-looking young man on London Bridge [J.B. Johnson]….mounted the parapet and dived to the great depth below, and, soon rising to the surface, swam to the rescue of the drowning man, whom he held by the collar of his coat until boats put off to their assistance. The daring rapidity of this voluntary act of heroism was greeted with immense cheering, and when they were conveyed to the Swan Hotel, at the foot of the bridge, an immense mob followed’

Leeds Mercury, 5 June 1871
Leeds Mercury, 5 June 1871

The next day the Swimming Championship of England took place at the Welsh Harp, Hendon, with J.B. Johnson taking part. He was now known as the ‘hero of London Bridge’ and spectators flocked to see him swim. The weather was terrible with wind, rain and hail at times so the field of seven, soon became a field of three – J.B. Johnson, Tom Morris and Henry Parker (the Amateur Champion 1870-71). The distance was one mile but Morris stopped after 200 yards and Parker was forced to pull out before the end with cramp. Johnson continued to complete the mile swim in 28 minutes 19 seconds and received a cup worth 50 guineas from the London Swimming Club.

Over the following months it was revealed that the London Bridge rescue was a publicity stunt and carefully planned.  Public calls for monuments and medals quickly faded away and The Leeds Mercury declared ‘the legend of J.B. Johnson, of Leeds, is as dead as a door-nail’ (19 June 1871).

Punch magazine published a rhyme about the brothers’ actions and it certainly got them plenty of press interest. J.B. was quick to capitalise on this with his next grand feat.

Punch magazine, 24 June 1871

On 24 August 1871 J.B. attempted to swim the English Channel. This was the first recorded attempt to swim from Dover to Calais and caused great excitement. It was undertaken for a wager of £2,000 to £60 and a boat – Palmerston – was hired to carry members of the press across the channel. Peter Johnson was towed in boat behind and was on hand if J.B. got into any difficulties in the water. The military band of the Surrey Zoological Gardens played Johnson down to the pier as he paraded with medals and awards pinned to him. He was met with thousands of spectators and after some delays, he dived into the water at 10.40am. Unfortunately conditions were far from ideal with strong currents and rough waves and after an hour he began complaining that his feet were cold. He was given some beef tea but this did not help and he was persuaded to abort the attempt. He supposedly swam seven miles, having been in the water just over an hour – although this has been disputed.

The Graphic, 7 September 1871

Undaunted, J.B. Johnson turned his hand to appearing as a circus act in 1872. He had previously appeared as Iza, a trapeze artist, but now his act involved a giant plate-glass aquarium where he performed various tricks under water. The Leeds Mercury reported on his appearance at the South London Palace –

‘he eats bread and drinks milk, he smokes a cigar, he walks like an alligator, he writes legibly on a slate, he turns an infinity of somersaults….he stays so long in the supplicatory attitude while the band plays ‘Sweet Spirit, hear my prayer’ that one is almost tempted to believe either that the water is an illusion, or that Mr Johnson is really a merman’.

Leeds Mercury, 26 November 1872

J.B. Johnson appeared for four nights in December 1872, at the Cookridge Street Circus (site of the current O2 Academy) alongside his brother, and performed the same feats, also staying under water for a full 3 minutes. The Leeds Mercury praised the performances saying ‘one of the merits of the entertainment is that the most sensitive may witness it with pleasure’ (21 December 1872).

By 1874, still calling himself the ‘hero of London Bridge’, he was advertising an act of staying under water for 4 minutes.

Swimming was kept in the family at the 1879 swimming fete at Roundhay Park. Peter’s daughters – Lizzie and Theresa – were the only two competitors in the 500 yards ‘ladies championship of England’. Both were under 10 years old and Lizzie just beat her younger sister. Peter chose to compete in the 200 yard handicap hurdle race and won easily in 3 minutes 28 seconds. One of the swimming instructors at Cookridge Street Baths, Mr Miller, made an appearance as Millnoori – a French clown. His act was to attempt to drive round the lake in a bath tub being dragged by 6 geese. Unfortunately the geese did not find this to their liking and refused to participate.

The remarkable feats of this family continued with the younger generation. All Peter’s daughters would go on to be accomplished swimmers in their own right. Theresa would go on to be a champion swimmer and her father placed an advertisement in the press in 1883 challenging any lady in the world to race against her for £100 for one mile or more. Edith successfully stayed in the water swimming or floating for 30 consecutive hours in 1880, her only nourishment being soups, bread and tea and Annie broke records by staying under the water for 3 minutes and 10 seconds in 1889, a first for a woman.

Peter died in Prague in 1890 whilst working for a circus and his death was reported by the Leeds Mercury on 14 January 1890. J.B. Johnson lived until April 1915 and worked for many years at Gorton Baths in Manchester, where he was employed as attendant until a few weeks before his death.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Janet says:

    Extremely interesting to read about these brothers and their swimming feats

    1. Margaret Hampson says:

      Peter was my great grandfather, I have only just found this article and find it very interesting

      1. Hi Margaret,

        Thank you so much for letting us know! That’s really amazing and we’re delighted you found the article and were able to tell us more about your ancestors. Do get in touch with us at localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk if you’ve got any further information to add to what we’ve said here.

        Best wishes,
        Antony
        Librarian

        Leeds Central Library

  2. Margaret Hampson says:

    These were my ancestors, I found this article very interesting

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.